Monday, March 05, 2012

The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Critcism by Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards

In 1996, when my first book, Pulp Culture, appeared, there seemed to be just a handful of books on the subject of noir film and fiction. These days it's   impossible to keep up with them all. But Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards' The Maltese Touch of Evil- Film Noir and Potential Criticism (Dartmouth College Press) seems to be one of those books that shouts out  to be read. Mostly comprised of entries from the authors' podcast, Out of the Past, The Maltese Touch of Evil- the title denotes the book's inherent playfulness and the manner in which one film noir feeds another- deconstructs images and scenes in order to construct, however tentatively, an aesthetics of noir. Despite the book's academic tendencies, the project turns out to be an on-going, even populist, affair. 

Not content  to stay within the confines of the traditional noir critique- the  template of which must still be, on the one hand, Silver and Ward's Film Noir Encyclopedia, and on the other, Borde and Chaumeton's Panorama of Film Noir- Clute and Edwards, by combining the historical and the analytical, attach their dark city sails to the Oulipo movement. A literary workshop based in France whose texts are defined by either mathematical or lexiconical constraint, Oulipo can list amongst it  practitioners Harry Mathews, Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau and, of course, George Perec. The latter not only wrote the screenplay for Alain Corneau's almost-successful 1979 film Serie Noir, based on Jim Thompson's Hell of a Woman, but penned the widely read Oulipian text, La Disposition (A Void), a crime novel written that does not use the letter e. Thus no mere, no pere, no crime, no accent grave, and, of course, no George Perec. Likewise, Clute and Edwards seek a comparable methodology, one that allows them to step back from the usual approach, and, in doing so, makes their criticism anything but impersonal.

Through such constraint Clute and Edwards would call our attention to the constraints made on the genre. Though I've never been fond of the cliche that freedom can only be found through constraint,  the golden age of noir was definitely created under those conditions, whether regarding the production code, directorial and studio demands, film aesthetics, cinematography and history. And those can be broken down into a set of further constraints- lighting, set design, writing conditions,  and the script itself, which has its own set of constraints with which to contend. You don't exactly  have to reach for your Oulipo to realize such was the case. On the other hand, the imposition of constraints and artificially creating them, Oulipo-style, are two entirely different things which, in turn,  necessarily create different sets of possibilities.  

No doubt about it, The Maltese Touch...  works well within its  circumscribed area. More an anthology in reel time, it's comprised of 102  entries- here called  noiremes- that range from the opening shot in  Sunset Boulevard to the foggy ending of Gun Crazy and the significance of the two cigarettes in an ashtray below the words The End in The Big Sleep. In between snippets derive from some thirty films, including  Out of the Past, Sunset Blvd, The Killers, Touch of Evil, The Hitch-Hiker, Kiss Me Deadly, D.O.A.. In reviewing those moments, Clute and Edwards are quick to point out that film noir is a self-critical and self-referential genre, representing what the Oulipians call potential criticism and plagiarism by anticipation, terms that denote their multi-directional movement in time as well as cinematic space. With cultural and cinematic critiques integral to these films, templates emerge which display an array of subjects and signifiers, traumatic as well as subversive, political as well as cultural.   

The perceptions embedded in these  takes are for the most part incisive, though they occasionally arc in the opposite direction; for instance, maintaining The Set-Up's real time reminds the viewer that time is running out for the protagonist; or that the explosion at the beginning Touch of Each denotes that film noir as a genre is being blown to bits. On the other hand, its comments on the cultural history behind Chinatown, Siodmak's grim assessment of post-war America in The Killers, the image of the staircase in Sunset Blvd, the lighting in The Postman Always Rings Twice, are bound to be  thought provoking. Personally I would have liked a wider selection of films-  Fallen Angel, The Big Combo, Raw Deal, On Dangerous Ground, Devil Thumbs a Ride- rather than It's a Wonderful Life, On the Waterfront and Good Night And Good-Luck, which,  though they contain elements of noir, lay outside the genre. Equally, I thought the first few chapters went to greater lengths than necessary to explain the book's Oulipian roots and methodology. But that could be because I was never quite sure to what extent their self-imposed constraints informed their perceptions. Though the authors list a series of self-constraints, that list hardly exceeds the demands any good editor might make. Of course, editors, in this context, and however necessary, could also be regarded as a constraint. 

As a footnote,  I read The Maltese Touch... at the same time as David Graeber's Debt: the First 5000 years. Consequently, I was unable to stop  thinking about film noir  in terms of debt, which, in turn, might another  example of constraint, as well as plagiarism of anticipation. After all, debt pretty much defines film noir's sub-text,  in terms of subject as well as style, with its concentration on  relationships reduced to  monetary value, manifested by heists, loan sharks, contract killings, corruption, gambling, prison (the debt one owes to society). Moreover, such debts are not only financial, but social and historical. Then there's  the literal debt owed to studios, actors, technicians and box office receipts. All of which illustrates that, despite, or because of, its limitations, The Maltese Touch... will make any  noir afficianado consider the wider implications of such films. So, even with the plethora of books on the subject, The Maltese Touch... is about to be placed on my bookshelf alongside such favorites as Silver and Ward's Film Noir Encyclopedia, Gerald Horne's  Class Struggle in Hollywood 1930-1950,  McCarthy and Flynn's King of the Bs, Nicolas Christoper's Somewhere In the Night and Michael Naremore's More Than Night. After all, this is one of those books that, after reading it,  you're not only going to want more, but you're going to find yourself thinking so much about these films that you'll immediately want to see them all yet again. Which can't be a bad thing, and says a lot for the provocative nature of the book.